Some unfortunate tenants who assert their rights find themselves rewarded with a landlord payback—whether in the form of petty harassment, a rent hike, or an all-out termination and eviction. The good news for most tenants is that landlord retaliation is illegal in most states—landlords who engage in it can be stopped and/or sued, sometimes for big bucks. The bad news is that asserting your rights can be a hassle, involving court fights and lots of time. As much as it’s possible, you’ll do far better to choose your landlord wisely in the first place.
But what if it's too late for that or you're blindsided by the landlord's behavior, and you don't want to move? What are your options if your request for repairs has been met with the sudden loss of your parking spot? Your efforts to organize other tenants into complaining about lack of security in the building have earned you a termination notice? Your complaint to the health department about mold in your apartment has led to a rent increase? Here's what you can do if you suspect retaliation.
In almost all states, it is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against tenants for acting within their legal rights--for example, if you have:
It’s important to understand that the anti-retaliation laws will shield you only for those activities that are mentioned in your state’s statute. Not all states protect tenants for all three types of actions mentioned above. To see what's covered, see your state laws prohibiting landlord retaliation. For example, in California, a tenant who circulates a petition demanding beefed-up security cannot be retaliated against; but that same activity would not be protected in Arizona, since “exercise of a legal right” isn’t included in Arizona's statute.
Once you know your legal rights, you need to know what your landlord cannot do in response to your exercising a legal right. The kinds of retaliatory acts covered by state statutes include:
Of course, few landlords are dumb enough to announce a retaliatory plan. Chances are that they will cloak their real motives in a cover-up, such as the sudden need to rent to a long-lost aunt or their financial inability to keep up with the just-decreased service. It’s up to you to prove that it's retaliation.
If you’re the object of your landlord’s nasty retaliatory actions, two responses are possible, depending on what the landlord has done:
Sometimes you’ll have a choice. For example, if the retaliation consists of a rent increase, you could refuse to pay and force the landlord to terminate and evict, banking on your antiretaliation statute as your defense. Or, you could immediately file suit in small claims court as soon as you get notice of the increase, hoping to resolve the issue before the increase kicks in. We strongly advise choosing the latter course whenever possible—if you lose, you can leave on your own terms, when and if you want to, without an eviction lawsuit going onto your credit report. On the other hand, if you force an eviction lawsuit your credit report will include this fact. Even if you win, this is not good news for any prospective landlord or employer.
By far the most common kind of retaliation, however, is of the petty sort. Before filing papers in small claims court, ask yourself if the issue is really worth your time and money to fight. And, unfortunately, many intensely annoying ploys are just not that big a deal to a judge, either.
If you think a rent hike or other negative treatment is motivated by your assertion of a tenant’s legal right, you may decide to fight back. But before you do, ask yourself the following questions:
Check your state statutes to make sure that you have anti-retaliation protection for what you’ve done. Not everything is protected (plus several states do not have an antiretaliation statute).
If you withhold rent with no valid reason, circulate a negative petition about your landlord that is patently inaccurate, or file endless, groundless complaints with government agencies, no judge will prevent a landlord from taking appropriate action (such as not renewing your lease or terminating your rental agreement),
Obviously, the shorter the interval between your exercise of a legal right and the date of a increase in rent or negative treatment, the more suspicious it becomes.
Judges are more likely to view a large rent increase (rather than a small one) as the landlord’s way to punish or drive away a troublesome tenant. Ditto with reductions in services.
Your chances of proving a retaliatory motive will be greatly increased if you can show that you alone, but not tenants in similar units, received the negative treatment.
Your landlord’s reputation is certainly a relevant factor if you contemplate challenging a rent increase. You can learn whether the landlord is a frequent visitor to landlord-tenant or small claims court by asking the local tenants’ organization or even your fellow tenants. The judge may tell you that this information is irrelevant and won’t be considered—but you may want to share it anyway, then listen politely while the judge gives you a little lecture on the rules of evidence.
It’s easier to win the cases in which you can convince a judge that the landlord has a strong motive to get even. Did you cause the landlord considerable time, expense, aggravation, or embarrassment? For example, if you complained to the local health department that your housing is uninhabitable because the roof leaked, and the department ordered your landlord to put on a new roof, that’s an expensive job that your landlord might resent highly. This anger could well prompt a retaliatory rent hike, you’ll claim. Similarly, an accusation of discrimination against your landlord, even if he ultimately defeats it, could easily generate strong feelings of bitterness and retaliation. On the other hand, your isolated request for a necessary and inexpensive repair is far less likely in the eyes of a judge to motivate serious landlord revenge.
Keep in mind that you don't need to be perfect. An honest mistake made during an otherwise valid attempt to exercise your rights usually won’t deprive you of the protection of your state’s anti-retaliation statute. For example, suppose that in response to a broken heater in the winter you withhold rent without complying strictly with your state’s notice requirement. Your angry landlord is likely to call you on your error and demand the rent. If you pay it, can he then terminate your tenancy? Assuming that the heater was truly broken and your mistake relatively minor, you’ll be in a good position to argue that you still deserve the benefit of your state law. Of course, you’d be far better off to follow the withholding rules carefully in the first place.
If you’re determined to fight back by filing suit or hunkering down and defending against an eviction, there’s one more issue you need to think about. How do you prove your landlord is trying to retaliate against you? In the real world, landlords are rarely so foolish as to say directly, “If you complain to the housing department, I’ll evict you!” Instead, they’re likely to stick it to you for a trumped-up reason, hoping to mask the fact that the real motive is to get rid of a tenant whom they regard as a troublemaker. Common examples of cover-ups that are really retaliations are:
Fortunately, however, many states give tenants an edge when it comes to unmasking illegal reasons to end a tenancy. In many states, the landlord is presumed to be retaliating against you if a tenancy is ended (or services decreased) within a certain amount of time after your exercise of a legal right, typically six months but sometimes 90 days or one year. This means that it will be up to the landlord to prove to the judge, should you end up in court, that his motives were not retaliatory.